Wondrous Creatures

I’m sitting in the living room staring at a corner of the carpet where our dog, Bear, used to lie. It’s one of our last nights in Austin before our move to Oregon. I look to the fireplace mantle where Bear’s ashes rest. The room is empty but for a sofa, empty bookshelves, and a dog crate. The crate belongs to Ellie, our beautiful girl who we rescued after Bear passed.

Our years in Austin have been magical, and I say that without any sense of hyperbole. My wife and I got married in the back yard under the shade tree, and Bear was right there with us. I never thought I’d love any dog but I’m a bonafide dog lover now. Bear was my wife’s dog long before we met, and she shared him with me graciously.

I used to say goodnight to Bear every night. I’d hold his face in my hand and say in my best Texan accent, “Quite a wondrous creature you are, Bear, made by the hand of God himself, I swear. Go to sleep pretty boy.”

I wanted to do right by Bear in his old age. At our old apartment, I’d take him outside and downstairs to pee almost every night around two or three o’clock. I’d carry his seventy-five pound frame back up the stairs and set him down gently. It was hard on both of us. We moved into this house so he’d have a big back yard and nothing to climb anymore.

He loved his yard and our walks around the block, but his old-age anxiety got worse. The neighborhood was full of foreign sounds: Bass booming from a passing car, a nearby movie theater full of explosions that sounded like distant thunder, and the rumble of the hot water heater. So there on that corner of the carpet he’d lie with his head under a fan to drown out the world and sleep it away.

It’s hard to know when to let your dog go. People say you’ll just know, or that they’ll tell you when they’re ready. It wasn’t like that with Bear. All I know is there’s no perfect time, your dog loves you, and we make it all about ourselves. “Will my friends think it was too soon? Will they think it was too late and I was cruel? I’m not ready to let him go anyway.” If you’re going through the same thing right now, all I can say is I understand and don’t be afraid.

The time came on a Saturday morning when Bear yelped in the living room. He couldn’t get himself up from the floor for all his pain, and it suddenly felt like we’d waited too long. We called a vet to come to our house, and then we waited. We gave him all the treats he could eat. We spent time with him in the sunny back yard. We cry-laughed as we drank him in for a few more precious hours.

The vet told us kindly that it was our time to take on the pain of grief so Bear could be free from the pain he suffered every day. And there, on that corner of the carpet, I cupped his lead-heavy head in my hand as his eyes shut, and I whispered, “Quite a wondrous creature you are, made by the hand of God himself, I swear. Go to sleep pretty boy.”

We cried a lot that day, but our grief was surprisingly light. We had good memories and a feeling that we’d given Bear his best life. We waited three months before considering another dog. I wanted one more than my wife did. Even so, she was kind, patient, and willing. She’s a rare treasure. We found Ellie at the city pound and brought her home — 75 pounds of puppy! We thought she was a shepherd mix until a friend told me, “Hey, that’s an Anatolian Shepherd!” We discovered that Anatolians are not for novice or lazy dog owners. She’s quite something.

I can’t imagine life without a dog. Good dog owners tend to be even-tempered, dependable, disciplined, and attentive to the needs of those around them. That is what Bear made out of me, and Ellie challenges me to be even more so. We play, train, and walk for hours every day.

I’m fond of saying that you love what you love. I mean that you feel love for what you love on purpose, and you become a better person because you love on purpose rather than by some serendipitous accident.

So tonight, I look over to see Ellie falling asleep on the floor. Like every night, I’ll hold her head in my hand and say, “Quite a wondrous creature you are, made by the hand of God himself, I swear.” Every night feels like a dress rehearsal for that inevitable day. The thing is, I don’t fear it any more after Bear’s passing. Strangely enough, I don’t fear my own death as much either. Ellie will probably pass when I’m old, myself. Just like Bear, she’ll fall asleep with us around her, our hearts full of fond memories. Then in so many years, it’ll be my turn.

I hope I have time to say a few goodbyes. I want to have lots of treats too, by the way. I want to cry-laugh with loved ones for a few hours. And I hope for you, my friend, the same thing I hope for myself — that someone will be there to whisper goodnight.

Quite a wondrous creature you are, made by the hand of God himself, I swear.